Mediaplanet sat down with Olympic cyclist and speed skater Clara Hughes to learn about her journey to becoming a mental health advocate.
You’ve been very open about your battle with depression. How did you seek help, and when did you know to seek help?
It was a slow process that began with sports psychologists — available to me as an Olympic athlete — but they weren’t the right fit for me as a person. It was like having a work coach help with personal issues, but they needed me to be successful in work first and foremost. I’m grateful for the support that many of these integrated support team members (sports psychologists) provided, but eventually, I had to go off on my own to find different people to complement this.
I worked with medical doctors, healers, and psychologists. I practised mindfulness and meditation (which is still a big project that has challenged me greatly over the years). I’ve become really curious and read so many books on trauma and adverse childhood experiences. I’ve taken courses online to understand these elements deeper (including Dr. Gabor Maté’s Compassionate Inquiry), and have learned all these years after trying to be the fastest person on earth on skates and on the bike that movement can be a beautiful form of medicine when you allow yourself to slow down. I took three years off work from 2017 to 2020 to walk thousands of miles on the long trails in North America to move in nature, walk in silence, and connect with space, place, and self. It was a powerful experience that allowed for so much healing.
It continues to be a rollercoaster ride of finding and practising the right elements of healing and at times professional help to stay healthy. I am, as we all are, a work in progress. I trust the people closest to me when they suggest it might be time to “make that appointment” again. I’ve also come to recognize the signs and indicators when I’m reverting into destructive patterns that lead to the same (and often destructive) place — so that I can put in place the things I’ve learned to stop the cycles I repeat. I’m not always able to do this but as time goes on, I find that I’m more able to recognize these patterns and shift them into healthier outcomes. Small things help, like going for a walk or writing things down or accessing a safe space where I’m able to give voice to triggered emotions and reactions so as to calm down and turn my reactions, which are often not rational, into responses that make sense for healing.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about mental illness?
There are so many misconceptions that people have about mental illness because of how these medical conditions are presented through media and popular culture, and due to the stigma that’s deeply embedded in all structures of society. The ones that stand out to me are mental illness being a personal weakness or a choice that a person makes. There’s a lot of blame on the person struggling and denial of mental health conditions because they’re often not seen like a broken bone is. That a person is the illness is another misconception. A person is not referred to as a cancer, but they will be called depressed. Language matters so much and it can hurt a person’s chance of healing and receiving help when these misconceptions are imposed on someone who’s struggling.
How has your mental health journey impacted your career as a cyclist?
I lost the better part of two years of my young athletic life to a mental health crisis. At this time, back in the ’90s, there wasn’t much talk about mental health or substance use disorders. Trauma wasn’t something discussed in mainstream news articles. I thought it was my fault and something that I had to fix. I had no idea that all the things I was struggling with weren’t unique to me. I didn’t know that a person could receive help, support, and healing. So, I tried and failed and eventually quit continuing my dream of being a professional athlete because I thought it was the competitive environment of sport that did this to me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was the same person with the same effects of trauma impacting everything I did in my life, including sport.
Until I received help to reconcile and heal the adverse childhood experiences I live with, it would continue to be the same struggle — the same cycles of dysfunction that I knew as survival. This was a lonely and difficult time. Even when I had success in sport, I felt as if I had failed. I missed out on so many beautiful moments and experiences during this time. I was unable to be present in these moments and was overwhelmed by creating an internal and sometimes external environment of chaos so as not to have to feel what was going on inside of me.
What can the public learn about mental health awareness from your story?
I think stories are really powerful — whether we share or receive them from each other. We connect through stories as humans and can hold space for each other in the environment of listening and opening up with our own stories. I think when people share their personal stories it can encourage another person to share theirs as well. So, my hope in sharing my story is that others feel compelled, valued, and ultimately heard. I hope that they’ll feel encouraged to give light to their own experiences.
What steps can individuals take toward breaking the stigmas surrounding mental health issues?
Educate yourself. Learn how to listen. Know what resources are available in your community for a person who might reach out to you. Normalize these conversations and understand that a person might be sharing their truth with you for the first time in their lives. Hold space in a non-judgemental way and really listen. Your response matters deeply and can affect a person’s ability to seek help and treatment. Think about the language you use. Remove slang words from your vocabulary that further stigmatize mental illness.
What advice would you give to anyone who’s currently struggling with their mental health?
I would say that you’re not alone. I believe you. I care. I would listen deeply and hold a non-judgemental space in my heart. I would ask, when the time is right, how I could be there for them. Check up on them. When a person is struggling, any attempt at advice can be internalized as criticism or failure — at least for me it often is. Instead of advice, which is often not very helpful, I would try to help them to get help from a professional. Help by researching or asking friends if they know of good mental health practitioners they could recommend. But most importantly, I would just listen as long and as often as I am asked.